One of the things that confounds me about some definitions of unschooling is the idea of allowing or letting unschooled kids learn through their own experiences. It is a definition that I read often. Sometimes I think an unthinking slip of the tongue/keyboard is the culprit; sometimes it appears that people have yet to completely come to terms with relinquishing control of their children’s learning process.
Do we really believe that we can let another person learn? We are all learning, all the time! That is part of being alive. Learning is inevitable; to prevent someone – especially a curious child – from learning is virtually impossible. So to say we are allowing or letting our unschooled kids learn in a certain way (via unschooling) is confusing, oxymoronic, and sometimes even patronizing. What we really mean is that we’re allowing children not to attend school (because that, by law, falls under our domain as parents or guardians) and facilitating their learning through life. Mere semantics? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it’s basic to a complete understanding of unschooling.
Let’s pursue that. Within schools and out, most people believe it is important to manage and control children’s learning, to channel it in the direction certain adults think it should go.
Schools do it in an obvious way, using curriculum based on a roster of subjects that has been created by separating out and organizing various topics that are supposed to be learned in a certain order, at a certain age. And, then, schools test children to be sure they can regurgitate the information they’ve had spooned into them. (Kids do learn at school, of course, and not always what is on the curriculum!)
But here’s the thing: Even though unschooling is supposedly the inverse of schooling, many of us are tempted to try and meddle with our children’s learning process, especially when it’s not progressing as we expect it should. However, defining the school-free life as letting kids learn on their own (either fully or in some instances) undermines their personal agency and the partnership between children and adults, which is at the root of unschooling / life learning. So I believe that one of the first things we need to get over as we deschool ourselves is the notion that we could control our kids’ learning – that we’re letting them learn in a certain way, even one where they ostensibly choose what to learn and when.
As life learning parents, we can provide love, trust, respect, safety, support, encouragement, mentoring, suggestions, inspiration, companionship, and answers to questions. And we can try to do all of this in a respectful manner that avoids condescension and the assumption that children only learn what they are taught. For me, that involves remembering who is in control of the learning process. If we really trust and respect both the process and children, we will develop comfort with having kids in the driver’s seat regarding their own education.
There is a Buddhist saying: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” That means that when we’re ready to understand (to learn, as we say), or to embark on a journey that we’ve been thinking about, we will. Things that others say, observations of our environment, passages read in books – they will all come to our attention as opportunities to make things “click.” As life learners, we define “ready” as when interest, curiosity, and need are present, rather than someone else doing that for us.
So if you find yourself thinking in terms of unschooling as “allowing” or “letting” kids learn in a certain way, please think about what independent learning and autonomy really mean. And remember that we can’t let a child learn any more than we can stop her from learning.
I’ve written more fully about “allowing” unschooling kids to learn in this article for Life Learning Magazine. And this article describes one mother’s effort to support her son (but keep out of his way unless asked) as he pursued his choice to learn a difficult skill.
There are also some articles from Life Learning Magazine on the website that relate to children’s autonomy and power in a broader sense. On that same article index, you’ll also find articles about what is possible when adults relinquish the notion that we are letting our unschooling kids to learn.